Four sets of swim trunks swished collectively as the boys strode across the sloping lawn in the bright sunlight. The windows of Gryffindor Tower winked familiarly overhead as they rounded the west side of the castle, with its many jutting turrets and battlements, to reach the lake on the south side. Finally, the last buttress gave way to a view of the surrounding landscape and a dazzling blue sky.
Here, the black basalt cliff, atop which the castle had been built, dropped sharply to the lake below, the roofs of Hogsmeade village peppered the valley beyond, and green mountains faded to a haze in the distance. As they neared the cliff, James gazed out over the water. The human triangle of Fanged Frisbee players he'd seen earlier from the tower dotted the gleaming surface. She was still playing.
His footsteps slowed until Peter glanced back. "You coming, James?"
James didn't answer. He veered to the cliff's edge and let his gaze drop to the beckoning depths below: A breeze rippled the surface enticingly; the dark hue of the water suggested depth.
"Let's jump from here." He nodded toward the precipice. He'd decided it would be the quickest and the best way to start having fun. Why walk all the way around to the shallow end when they could jump? Couldn't be more than sixty feet…?
His three friends stopped.
"Er… I don't know if that's a good idea. There might be rocks below the surface." Remus's expression twisted.
"Nah, I've swum down there. It's deep at that spot," Sirius countered. James could see a familiar avid look spreading across his best friend's face.
A spring breeze swept through their midst, ruffling their hair as they swapped looks.
"Well, I have enough danger in my life already,"Remus shrugged. "And what's the point?" He shielded his eyes from the sun and stood glancing back at James, making an appeal to his better judgment.
James understood where Moony was coming from, but for him, this was a giveaway question. 'What's the point?' Well, it would be exhilarating; there was no Quidditch practice today; and wasn't it their job to test out all Hogwarts had to offer them while they were here?
While he silently enumerated the many good reasons with a sense of excitement rising in his chest, preparing to break it to Moony that he planned to jump anyway, Sirius stepped to the edge and let his gaze fall.
"Well, I'm in," Sirius confirmed.
His grey eyes glimmered as they met James's. It was a look which suggested to James that he was in danger of losing first jump; once Sirius got an idea in his head, he quickly put it into action.
"No way, tosser—My idea—I'm first!" James warned waggishly, but there was only one way to secure it.
"Look, I'm going to head down to the other side," Remus informed, turning to go. Peter shrugged, blushed, and followed.
James and Sirius exchanged a loaded glance, and suddenly, as though a whistle had been blown, a race to undress broke out between them. James peeled his shirt over his head with vigor—Blast!—The corners of his glasses snagged his collar. He threw the troublesome frames carelessly onto the grass, unpocketed his wand and tossed it too, and moved double-time to catch up. Can't let Padfoot win! They cobbed elbows as they reached down to tug off their shoes without untying the laces—
—and jumped in unison.
The cliff streaked by in a blur. The rush of air tingled James's skin and pulled at the roots of his hair as he plummeted toward the lake. Instinctively, he tucked his legs underneath him in anticipation of the plunge. At last, his body blasted through the hard surface, the water rushing past every square inch of his skin, its coolness enveloping him on all sides.
As the water slowed him down, James stroked hard with cupped hands to propel himself back toward the beams of sunlight dancing on the surface. Rising… Rising… his head burst into the breezy air. He shook out his water-logged hair as Sirius, eyes gleaming with excitement, shot up next to him, giving a bark of approval and a toss of wet bangs.
"Great idea, Prongs."
James smiled. Sirius's good mood and the heady elixir of June spread through him like a warm medicine.
"I pity the fifth years who are suffering through studying for O.W.L.s right now," said Sirius as he flipped onto his back and floated.
O.W.L.s: Ugh.Who could forget?
Sitting exams on hot days at hard wooden desks; sprouting angry quill calluses on his thumb due to page after page of essay writing; waiting in endless lines for practical examinations by some old codger from the Ministry only to find out he'd studied more thoroughly than necessary—the requests had all been easy…
But worse than any of the academic rigors had been that severe telling off he'd received from Lily after the Defense Exam.
'Messing up your hair…showing off with that stupid Snitch…I'm surprised your broomstick can get off the ground with that fat head on it. You make me SICK.'
Blimey… Was that what she really thought of him? He'd brooded over it more than he cared to admit, even after they'd stepped off the Hogwarts' Express for summer holidays.
Ironically, he'd only been trying to get her attention. Never an easy task. Half the blokes in school were interested in her. Where did that leave him?
He'd made an effort this year—a concerted effort—not to get her back up like that again, to lie low, and above all, to stop asking her out. At best, this new approach had yielded a few cordial interactions, even a congratulatory "Good game, James" after they'd won the Hufflepuff match. At worst, he'd watched her accept a date to Hogsmeade with someone else this winter.
At least it hadn't been Snivellus. He unwittingly recalled a memory of having seen the Slytherin in the library just yesterday, his hair desperately in need of a shampooing, his nose nearly thrust into the binding crack of Gross Transmogrifications.
Dark Magic.He hated it.
Fortunately, Lily had changed her opinion where Severuswas concerned and James no longer had to suffer the indignity of watching him prance around at Lily's side, all the while hiding his darker habits.
And James had tried dating other girls, but they never held half the allure of Lily... If only she'd give him a fair shot. He glanced back toward the triangle of players with a renewed sense of longing.
"Want to head over and play?" he prodded Sirius, who remained casually afloat next to him.
"Frisbee? With the girls?" Sirius swiveled his head to look at James.
"You don't want to jump again?" Sirius's tone struck a note of disbelief. He bobbed up and shook out his hair. Droplets sprayed back into the lake.
"Hmmm, maybe later…"
Sirius studied him. Just when James thought he might respond with a brisk, 'Suit yourself, mate', he said, "Why don't you head over? I'll just take one more jump."
James considered. Sticking with Sirius and taking another jump had its allure, too…
"You want the Frisbee, then?" Sirius asked.
"Ruins my chances of getting invited, doesn't it?" James flashed a frown.
"What about when Moony and Wormtail make it around? You'll be six. With one Frisbee."
James shrugged his shoulders dismissively. "Fanged Frisbee's better with more people if you ask me. Changes up the pass order."
"Good point." Sirius glanced toward the game, then back at the cliff.
"You mind jumping alone?"
"It'll be your loss, not mine." Sirius grinned slyly.
James returned it. "I'll make up for it this summer. Extra flying." He could always count on trumping Sirius at Quidditch, if nothing else.
"All right, then. See ya, Prongs." Sirius flipped onto his back again before tossing out a casual, "Good luck."
Leaving Sirius behind, James swam out alone towards the Gryffindor girls. The cool water of the lake washed against his skin and heightened his spirits as he swam, temporarily overpowering the usual rise in nerves which preceded an encounter with Lily. Ripples propagated out ahead of him like a herald.
With every other stroke, he caught sight of the magnificent stone castle looming in the background. Over in the reeds, Flying Juncus spun their long fronds in a propeller-like motion, hovering into the air and skimming back down into the water a few feet away.
Plooop! James's arm dipped in for the next stroke.
Certainly Gryffindors comprised the majority of the swimmers today, James noted, as rigor warmed his working limbs. Off left, Kingsley and Grover dove for Plimpies to taunt. Davey Gudgeon waded in from the pebbly beach, splashing water back at an indignant yet laughing Mary MacDonald.
Beyond the beach was another popular spot from which to wade in, recognizable by the gnarled roots of two trees which stood like sentinels at the water's edge. The eroded ground between them had been worn smooth by so many years of passing feet. No sign of Moony or Peter yet.
James glanced ahead: The three girls—Lily, Bonnie, and Florence—were standing in a triangle at various depths and distances from shore. Lily was the closest to James. Her back faced him, a circumstance which felt dolefully familiar, and, as he drew closer, he took in her pale shoulders poking through the surface of the water. Strands of wet hair trailed down her back… His casual outlook vanished.
How exactly am I going to invite myself to join their game? 'Hey Evans, I saw you out my dorm window and wanted a chance to talk to you before summer holidays…'
And why hadn't Sirius convinced him otherwise? Just then, Bonnie waved hello from a distance. Florence took notice of him. And Lily glanced briefly over her shoulder before turning back to the game. Florence shot the next pass to Lily: The Frisbee whistled through the air… Splashing left, she leapt deftly toward it, caught it at arm's length, and flicked it back across the lake.
"Nice catch, Evans."
She half-pivoted at the sound of his voice.
"Hi Potter," she replied, kindly enough, but with a trace of wariness. She glanced behind her to check on the game again—the Frisbee was now sailing from Florence to Bonnie—before facing him.
Her shoulders squared off lightly with his. Her chest was submersed below the water level (and he felt strangely thankful for that), but he noticed she'd tucked her wand under the elastic at the top of her teal green swim costume. Her hair, deepened in color by the dampness to a reddish-bronze, had been threaded behind her ears; the ends scattered across her shoulders; and sunbeams dazzling off the surface of the lake created Floo fire flames in her bright green eyes.
"Can I play?" he asked, adopting a friendly tone in spite of his nerves.
A noticeable second ticked by before she answered.
"Aren't your friends around?" she asked lightly, casting a glance westward toward where Remus and Peter now walked the shore.
Merlin, why did she have to put him off like that?
Heart panging, he threw a cursory glanced toward the shore to fulfill his answer and caught sight of a flash of clothing between trees back along the path. "No… Remus and Peter will be a while. And Sirius is—", he glanced back over his shoulder, "—taking another jump."
Lily surveyed the cliff, her arms feathering lightly beneath the water.
Was it fun?" she asked with a hint of reservation in her voice.
James searched her expression, but he didn't get very far before her gaze flickered behind her to check on the game, as if afraid to miss a pass, and then back on him.
"About as much fun as riding the rail carts at Gringott's," he ventured, thinking it a good answer.
Her expression remained impassive.
At the same time as he realized he'd stuffed his answer—Lily didn't likely have a Gringott's vault, being Muggleborn—he noticed a fast-approaching fanged Frisbee in the background.
"Heads up!" he warned, pulling a hand out of the water and pointing past her head.
The water gave a small 'plurp' as she half-ducked, but still managed to catch it deftly in two clapped hands, avoiding the rim of gnashing teeth, and sent it back over toward Bonnie.
"Nice reflexes," he commended, watching it sail across as she spun back around to face him. Her eyes seemed to widen in surprise.
"So, can I play?" he pressed hopefully.
"Are you any good?" she asked, quirking up one brow.
A smile slipped onto his face. "It's just Fanged Frisbee," he shrugged jocularly, enjoying the sudden repartee.
The corners of her mouth flattened into an expression of dismay. "I thought you'd say something like that."
What the Snidget? "You asked.What did you want me to say?" He tried to keep a playful tone, but the grin had slid off his face, and the Gryffindor in his chest protested 'foul play, Evans'.
"Nevermind," she dismissed, and after another second of consideration in which she eyed him, she added evenly, "You can play between Bonnie and Florence."
Bonnie McDermott, a fellow Gryffindor with ginger-brown, coil-sprung hair, greeted him warmly as he took position between her and Florence Fortescue.
"Hi James," she sang.
James returned an affable smile as he spun around to face the game.
As soon as he did so, a pass came sailing his way from Lily. Despite its unexpectedness, and everything looking a little blurry without his glasses, he caught it in one hand and lobbed it softly off to Florence. Then he glanced toward shore to check on Remus and Peter.
They'd arrived at the boat launching beach, but they weren't alone. Three girls James recognized as Ravenclaws had joined them on the walk; two were flanking and conversing with Moony as he toed toward the water's edge; the third appeared to be removing her sandals in Peter's vicinity. The girl next to Moony flicked her wand and a wooden rowboat whisked from its stowed location on the bank over to the water in front of them.
A whistle of air pulled James's attention back to the game. Just in time. A wobbly pass from Bonnie nearly collided with the side of his head before he had fully turned back around, but he managed to simultaneously duck and thrust a hand into the air to snatch it—but not without its teeth sinking in. Quietly, he winced.
With arrow straightness, he flicked it to Lily, who passed it back to Bonnie.
"I'm getting cold," Bonnie pronounced with a shiver after making the catch and exhaling audibly. "I'm going to swim over and play from that rock," she said, pointing to a black boulder which pierced the surface forty feet further out, a popular spot from which to dive. It looked invitingly sunny and warm, like a good spot for a midday kip.
He twisted around to check on his friends. Moony had waded part way in, shucked off his shirt, and tossed it to shore. He was about to proceed deeper when James heard the whoosh of water signaling Sirius's second jump.
Below the cliff, a white geyser shot up, and a second later, Sirius's head bobbed to the surface. He shook out his hair just as he'd done before, and James, without regretting his choice, felt a small pang of envy.
What was THAT? It resounded off cliff and water…
James's eyes scanned the air for the source of the piercing cry—a strangely familiar sound—but where had he heard it before? He caught sight of a bolt of silvery-grey darting out from the face of the cliff…
It spread its wings and swooped above the lake at breakneck speed: Afalcon!
Sirius must have disturbed it while making his second jump.
After spiraling once, the great speckled bird initiated a spectacular stoop toward the surface of the lake, its tail, wings, and feet folding back as it gained speed… It bombed directly toward Sirius, who—at the last moment—plunged underwater to evade it…
Outstretching its talons and redeploying its wings, it grazed the surface before soaring skyward again. Then it rose once more to the height of its arc—James watched it, half awestruck, half alarmed—recognizing this as a possible setup for another dive. But it maintained its altitude.
On shore, Kingsley and Grover craned their necks skyward to watch from underneath a small canopy of trees. James was about to breath a sigh of relief when it glided over their Frisbee game and let out another raucous cry. A flash of movement at the surface of the lake caught his eye—
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up… Bonnie gasped. James held his breath.
The falcon dove. Lily's shoulders tensed, and she shrieked, but she raised her wand and out shot a flash of grey: Five or six small birds darted from the tip like the sparks in a fireworks display… Then she, too, plunged, just as Sirius had done, and the peregrine gave chase to the swallows.
Birds of prey hunt smaller birds. Smart, Evans.
James watched the pursuit, relieved to see it moving away from Lily. The angry falcon struck out with its heel talons as the swallows zipped frantically past. In a trio, they soared higher, reversed direction, and then sped south. As the first one shot past, James heard its wings slice the air overhead. Then, he tensed as the peregrine, too, advanced in his direction.
He surveyed his surroundings, caught sight of Bonnie plunging off the rock, and started swimming to meet her. Within a few strokes, he'd reached her side.
"All right?" he asked, quickly.
A sudden flash in his side vision revealed the bird swooping toward them faster than a rogue Bludger.
Without thinking, he slung an arm around Bonnie's neck and pulled her underwater before she'd even sealed her mouth shut. They jostled limbs in the underwater turbulence before surfacing together seconds later.
Bonnie's inelastic coilsprings drooped in her eyes and she choked violently on a swallow of water.
"Sorry—," he breathed, offering his arm for her to tread water on while she continued gasping. "Didn't mean to drown you. Y'all right…?"
Bonnie ceased spluttering long enough to nod affirmatively.
James's gaze flitted back up into the air as they spoke, trying to relocate the bird…
Another "SCREEEEEEEEE" placed it near shore—angrily wheeling over the three Ravenclaw girls.
One minute he was looking up at its snowy underbelly…
The next, its salt and pepper wings were foiling in descent again…
A round of bloodcurdling screams rang out. The two Ravenclaw girls closest to the boat shrank under the contour of the gunwale. Remus yelled "WATCH OUT!", flipped the boat on top of them, and dove underneath it into the airspace.
Its heel talons struck the underside of the rowboat as though snatching a giant fish. Then, beating its wings, it rose halfway to the height of the trees before spotting Peter and the Ravenclaw girl on shore. Peter cowered, looking stricken and terrified.
C'mon, Wormtail… James's chest filled with a sense of foreboding... Do something.
The bird rushed its target…
Peter panicked, thrust his wand skyward and fired off a spell. Green sparks shot into the air…
"NOOO!" James shouted, but it was too late. The bird let out a jarring cry and ricocheted away from the jet of light… It mustered two last feeble flaps of its wings in an attempt to reclaim flight… and hopelessly plummeted. James watched its feathered body cartwheel earthward until it crashed into a clump of tall spiky sedges around the bend. A dart punctured his chest. He smacked palm to forehead and heaved a sigh.
Moony peered out from under the rowboat, tilting it to rights when he saw the coast was clear.
"C'mon, let's get to shore," James breathed dejectedly to Bonnie. They'd taken no more than ten strokes before he'd pulled significantly ahead of her. Suddenly realizing how fatigued she was, he stopped and treaded water while she caught up.
"All right?" he asked as she swam up beside him. Apples of color dotted her cheeks, matching the undertones of her hair.
"Yeah… I'm just tired," she admitted. "And I dropped my wand," she added ruefully.
James tilted his gaze down into the lake. The sun's reflection had turned the surface of the water into a grey-blue mirror, preventing him from seeing the bottom and gauging its depth. How deep could it be, though? They were relatively close to shore.
"I'm not sure I can dive that far. Can you get it?" she asked hopefully.
James threw a glance over his shoulder. Moony and the two girls were wading onto the beach, their soaked clothes clinging to their shoulders and hips. "Sure. You want to wait on the rock?"
"Where exactly were you when you dropped it?"
"Right around there." Bonnie pointed five feet further back, but she didn't sound very certain.
Just north of them, James noticed Florence wading to shore with Lily trailing closely behind, heading for the sentinel trees. He gulped a breath and ducked underwater.
Ten feet down, he scrabbled a hand blindly through the muddy reeds as bubbles escaped his nose and lips. His brain had just registered the thoughts, this is impossible… needle in a haystack…and much better to just Accio it from shore, when his hand latched onto something spindly.
Rising to the surface, he blinked his watery eyes open to see an unfamiliar maple wand clutched in his wet fingers.
He swam up to the rock where Bonnie was waiting, arms wrapped around her knees to keep warm.
"I take it there are no regularly scheduled swim sessions at McDermott's Magical Farm?" he grinned, producing the wand and holding it out to her.
"Ha, lots of chores, more like," Bonnie snorted. She smiled as she accepted it. "Thanks, James."
"Well, we only have a hundred yards to go… Or better yet—" James glanced shoreward, noticing that Sirius had managed the long swim over while he'd been diving for the wand and was now crunching up onto the beach. "HEY, MOONY!" Remus looked up. "SEND US A BOAT!"
When they reached the shore, Lily met them at the water's edge, a crease between her brows. "Are you all right?" she asked, taking Bonnie's hands and helping her up the beach.
"Well, Potter nearly drowned me," Bonnie quipped with a collusive glance and a smile back at James as they tromped onto shore, "but I'm fine now."
Lily flicked her wand into the air and conjured a fluffy, striped beach towel identical to the one she wore wrapped around herself and handed it to Bonnie. After she'd helped her friend to wrap it over her shoulders, she conjured a second one and handed it to James, their eyes connecting briefly.
"Thanks," he said.
Once he and Bonnie had toweled off, they rejoined the rest of the group standing in a sodden throng in the middle of the beach. Everyone began talking at once, swapping stories and taking stock of scrapes and bruises. Remus sported a cut on his foot from a sharp rock or a freshwater mollusk shell; meanwhile, Peter still looked shaken and he'd somehow accumulated bramble scratches on his calves just on the walk over. His eyes dwelled on the ground, failing to meet his mates'.
"That doesn't look so good, Moony," pronounced Sirius, lifting Remus's foot to examine it as though it were a dog's hind paw. The girls gathered around, bending their heads for a better look. A bright bead of blood welled atop the cut. Florence sucked in a breath. The shortest Ravenclaw girl bit her lip. Lily set a gentle hand on Remus's shoulder and craned her neck to see.
He's seen worse, thought James grimly. Though a bit of sympathy can't hurt, for a change…
"I'll take him up to Pomfrey," offered Sirius. "It'll be faster if we go by boat—through the cliff. Besides, that way you won't have to walk on it so much." He turned to Peter and added, "Peter, you should come too. Those scratches might swell up if left untreated."
"We're heading back, too," announced the tallest Ravenclaw girl with long, black hair, and she glanced at her friends in solidarity; they nodded unequivocally, and looked around for a boat.
"I think Bonnie should get a dose of Pepper-Up," suggested Lily, and James nodded agreement, noticing she was still shivering underneath her towel.
"I can take her," offered Florence, clasping Bonnie's hand and giving it a small, cheerful swing along with a smile.
"Why don't we all go?" agreed Lily.
James turned to look off left, first at the bend, then at the cliff with a faraway look in his eyes. "Sirius, when you're done, I think we should have a closer look at that cliff."
Several of his companions cast quizzical looks amongst themselves, but Sirius met his gaze directly. Lily and Remus looked on with interest.
"Why?" asked Remus.
James scratched his head. "I think that falcon was guarding a nest. That's my theory as to why it got so angry. Now that it's… dead," he said, the words ringing with remote melancholy as he spoke them, "there might be fledglings left behind."
"You mean chicks?" asked Florence.
James gave a solemn nod.
"What if there's another falcon in the nest?" Florence challenged.
"Nah, it would have flown out," said Sirius. "James is right."
"Sounds…dangerous," said Bonnie. She and Florence wore matching looks of apprehension.
James shrugged. The danger—if there was any—didn't concern him. After all, he and Sirius had already jumped into the lake from the cliff's high point. The worst that could happen was that they'd fall into the water again while scrambling around on their search.
"We can't just leave them to die," asserted Sirius, who threw a fiducial glance at James, as good as a promise he'd return to help.
Suddenly, Lily's voice interrupted. "I can help," she piped in, turning to face James.